March 14, 2011

Caminando por Alcalá

I can’t believe nearly four months have passed since I left Spain. Returning to the U.S. has been like going through reverse culture shock, bringing with it both the good and the bad. Besides my Spanish friends and the Spanish culture in general, what I miss most is having the time to explore the city and discover something new every time I step outside. Living back home in Medford, my route to school is generally a straight line with little exploring and few new sights. I think this stems from a combination of walking with my eyes half-closed from living in the Boston area for all of my life, generally being in a rush for class or work, and simply not making the time to discover an area I simple-mindedly consider well known.

Living in Spain has taught me that, despite this natural tendency to overlook the familiar, there are new locations to discover, new places to visit, and new people to meet no matter where I live and no matter how long I’ve been there; you just have to accept it. So as a reminder to myself and to others that by keeping open eyes and an open mind, and by walking slowly with your head held high, you will always see something you’ve never seen before, whether it be a new person, a house you’ve never noticed, or the first flower buds emerging from the mud-luscious ground, I’ve posted my final dibujo project from last semester.On one of my last Sundays in Alcalá, I headed out for a two hour walk with my camera in an attempt to photograph my personal map of the city. I started in my apartment and headed down my favorite streets, photographing the squares in which I spent most of my time. I edited all of the pictures together as a horizontal journey through the city, overlaying each site above its location on a map of the city and adding it different sketches from throughout the semester. This is Alcalá through my eyes.

What I witnessed on my walk made me realize how much there is to see in the world. Within those two hours, I saw people, young and old, celebrating the holiday season by spraying each other with silly string. I saw children running through the street hammering away on tambourines and vendors roasting chestnuts at the end of Calle Mayor. I saw tourists visiting the Casa de Cervantes and bomberos joking around after having put out a fire at a local restaurant. When I reached the Plaza de Cervantes I came across a Christmas concert where a huge crowed sang along with a local band as friends laughed, danced, played tambourines, and sprayed each other with the aforementioned silly string. Around the corner, a huge line extended from city hall as the people of Alcalá gathered to see Spain’s World Cup. Next to the line, soldiers from the Spanish army cooked lunch for anyone who was interested. While a testament to all that made my semester in Spain an incredible experience, all that I experienced in those two hours reveals what amazing experiences a simple walk down the street can contain.

December 29, 2010

Holiday Trip: Day 7 – Paris or Disneyworld?

I think it’s fair to say that Paris is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and I’ve only seen it in the winter! Every city has its own character, and Paris is unique in its beautiful architecture, roadside bistros and cafes, the flower shops in most plazas, and way the city seems to glow at night. This beauty, combined with the historical and cultural significance of the city and nearly all of its landmarks, draws thousands of people to the city, creating a unique mix of cultures and languages, as locals, tourists, travelers, and visitors share the city. It also creates lines and queues, everywhere in the city, reminiscent of your favorite amusement park.

We were aware that the Louvre fills up quickly, so we had planned to get there early and beat the crowds. Unfortunately we overslept and everyone beat us to the line. We decided to save the museum for another day and instead went to Notre Dame, the famous cathedral of Paris. Notre Dame is enormous and entrance is free, so there should be plenty of room inside and no ticket window to create a traffic jam, and yet there was still an enormous line extending from the beautiful facade of the cathedral. The line seemed to be moving at a good pace, however, so we queued up and made our way into the cathedral.

I’ve been to Notre Dame three times and it never fails to impress me. The grandeur and immensity of the building is simply awe inspiring. The height of the interior and the beauty of the two enormous stained glass windows, as well as the numerous chapels that line the cathedral, is simply astounding. There are pews lined up for worship and for silent prayer, where we sat for a few minutes enjoying the voices of the choir as they echoed off the walls. Walking around the cathedral, one sees lots of visitors taking pictures and admiring the beautiful architecture and enormity of the building, but also people praying, lighting candles and kneeling before a chapel in prayer. The beauty of Notre Dame is that it serves as a religious experience for some and a breath-taking secular experience for others. It is a place that combines the spiritual realms of life and religion while allowing people from all walks of life to appreciate its grandeur.

After Notre Dame we walked down the island to St. Chapelle, only to find another long line. After a cold, cloudy day of finding lines everywhere we went, we decided to save St. Chapelle for another day as well. On the way back to the hotel we stopped at Concorde to see the famous ferris wheel and the Champs Élysées stretching out before us towards the Arc de Triomphe. We walked through the beautiful gardens next to the square which had a great view of the obelisk and the Eiffel Tower in the distance. I brought my parents to the Christmas Market and we walked along as before, enjoying the festive atmosphere and the sidewalks filled with people and drinking our vin chaude. After a delicious ham and cheese crepe we headed back to the hotel to rest before going to the Moulin Rouge.

We had a quick, but delicious dinner at Indiana Cafe, an American-style French restaurant. I had (can you guess?) a salad! Delicious, crunchy lettuce with tomatoes, tortilla pieces, juicy chicken, and a delicious balsamic dressing. But I digress. We took the metro to the stop near Moulin Rouge and entered yet another line after a brief coffee break at the Starbucks across the street. We eventually made our way into our tightly packed seats and found ourselves across from delightful fellow Americans from Florida. What a pleasant surprise to find people with whom we could talk before the show!For those who have seen the movie Moulin Rouge, a personal favorite of mine, the actual show is quite different. It’s more or less a dance show but with less clothing and a few acrobatic and talent acts like juggling and ventriloquism. All in all it’s definitely an experience worth seeing, but nothing that needs to be visited more than once or that shines in quality of dancing or singing. The most impressive acts are of the acrobatics and talents, leaving the audience on the edge of their seats as a performer balances his partner on one hand while lifting her with his arms alone, or a juggler simultaneous manages 7 pins. The ventriloquism was also quite impressive and definitely hilarious. The show was fun and a good night out for our second night in the city!

December 29, 2010

Holiday Trip: Day 6 – Arrival in Paris

Short post for today as we spent most of the day traveling. Flew from Madrid to Frankfurt, Germany and then onto Paris where we thankfully took a taxi to the hotel (much easier than taking the metro and train like I did when visiting with some friends from the Tufts in Madrid program). Our hotel is less than five minutes from the Arc de Triomphe and in a perfect location for visiting the city.

We asked the concierge to recommend a nice but casual bistro and she sent us to a nice, “casual”, but pricey bistro a couple blocks away. The food was delicious, I had a salad and chicken skewers. So nice having a full bowl of salad with mixed greens and vegetables! Spanish cuisine does not generally incorporate raw vegetables or hefty salads, so it was like Christmas to be able to eat them again as a basic part of a meal.

After dinner we walked up to the Arc de Triomphe and then down the Champs Élysées. Mom and Dad returned to the hotel while I continued down the beautifully decorated street to the Christmas market. All of the trees on each side of the road were covered in Christmas lights that twinkled on and off, creating an almost magical appearance. The Christmas market is enormous, containing hundreds of tents and merchants selling everything from Vin Chaud, crepes and Belgian waffles (gaufres in French or gofres in Spanish), to arts and crafts like homemade greeting cards and custom jewelry. I indulged in a chocolate gaufre and made my way leisurely back to the hotel.

December 27, 2010

Holiday Trip: Day 5 – Time in Toledo

For our last full day in Spain we decided to take a day trip to Toledo, a gorgeous city perched atop a huge hill in a somewhat desolate area outside of Madrid. A short high-speed train ride brought us there and we hopped on the tourist bus waiting outside the station. I generally prefer exploring new cities independently and discovering some of the hidden gems on my own, but the huge advantage of the tour buses is that you are able to see the highlights of the town quickly while seeing everything from a view you might not normally get while walking. In Toledo, the bus took us on a route around the city on the opposite side of the river, so we were able to see all the major buildings and sites of the city from afar as we circled the city, and then were able to see them up close when we disembarked in the main plaza.

This was my third trip to Toledo and it’s always a fantastic experience. It was a beautiful sunny day, but quite cold as well. After sitting on the top of the open-air tour bus, we headed straight to a café to order some tea and warm up. We wandered around the city, visiting some shops and doing some window browsing. When we reached the Cathedral plaza a nice man told us about an artist workshop that was closing in an hour and, with no specific commitments or plans, we decided to check it out. We were all a little suspicious at first, but it ended up being pretty cool. There were there “masters” at work, creating the Damasquino jewelry of Toledo, which is jewelry decorated with intricate gold patterns. Toledo is famous for this style of jewelry and examples of it can be found in any gift shop throughout the city. Here, however, you can watch it being made first hand, which not only shows that their jewelry is made by hand, but also creates a unique connection between buyer and seller as you are able to meet the person who created the piece of art you’re purchasing.

After visiting the workshop, we walked up to the cathedral but skipped the line for entry and instead headed to a nearby tapas restaurant. This turned out to be the same restaurant I had gone to four years ago when our high school Spanish class went to Spain for a week. I had been so proud of myself at the time for asking the waiter to bring us what he recommended. Fun being back in the same restaurant, but with a much better level of Spanish at my disposal and four years of life experience. The restaurant created two memory snapshots, the present and the past, that really put into perspective how much I’ve grown and matured in my Spanish, as well as in general life. Oh and the food was also delicious!Bellies full (this seems to be a common theme from this vacation!), we wandered around the city a bit more, discovering some beautiful old streets that seemed to turn in every direction without ever ending. We walked up to the alcazar, but unfortunately it was closed for renovations, so instead we headed to the old city hospital that has since been turned into a beautiful museum featuring many pieces by El Greco and some amazing tapestries and ancient artifacts from Toledo’s early days. Amazing to see the ancient tools and pottery created 2,000 years ago by people living in the same area we had been walking around all day. With our train departure time rapidly approaching, we headed back to the station and made it on board with only minutes to spare.

After packing at the hotel, we left our lovely Best Western in search of a quick dinner, which we found at a nice tapas restaurant off of Sol. The food wasn’t quite as good as we had experienced at the other Madrid tapas bar, but it was delectable and made for a fitting last meal. I left my parents on the way back to the hotel to take some night pictures of Madrid in Sol, Gran Via, Plaza de Cibeles and la Puerta de Alcalá. As with all of the pictures I’ve been taking on the trip you can see them at my flickr page! Finished packing back at the hotel and got some sleep before waking up for our flight to Paris.

December 26, 2010

Holiday Trip: Day 4 – Comida con mis dos familias

Today was truly a day of families. After sleeping in to catch up on some sleep, we took the train into Alcalá to have lunch with my host family. I was looking forward to the lunch, but was a little nervous about having a meal between two families that spoke two different languages. Would there be a lot of awkward silences or misunderstandings? On the way to the Plaza de Cervantes, I showed my parents a little bit of Alcalá, introducing them to what has been my home for the last 4 months. We walked along Calle Libreros, enjoying the warm sun on a cold December day. We visited Colegio de San Ildefonso and the Plaza Mayor where we walked around for a bit. Turning back after reaching the end of the plaza, I saw my host family waiting for us at the statue of Cervantes.I was a little nervous about the first encounter, but it went better than I could have hoped. Paqui, Juan and Eva embraced all of us with a warm hug and dos besos. Soon we were talking away with me and Eva as the translators and each of our respective parents trying to make out what they could of the others’ language. My mom did her best to thank Paqui and Juan in Spanish, with Paqui helping her through it as needed. We talked for a bit in the plaza and I even met some of their extended family who were walking through the plaza at the same time. Everyone was extremely kind and it felt like a family reunion more than anything.

After some small talk we left the plaza and headed to the Parador where my parents wanted to treat Paqui, Juan and Eva to lunch for taking care of me over these last few months. I had never been inside the parador, but they are known throughout Spain for being impeccable, elegant hotels. The parador in Alcalá is barely a year old and creates an interesting mix of modern architecture and interior design within the ancient setting of Alcalá’s beautiful university buildings. We found the dining room and decided on the exquisite buffet which provided a first course of salad, cheese, meats, and paella, a second course of our choosing, and a buffet of desserts, as well as drinks. With such a broad array of food at our disposal how could we say no?

The meal passed quite rapidly as we moved from salad to paella and migas to our main dish and eventually onto dessert. While I had been nervous about the conversation during the meal, it ended up being quite fun, with Eva and myself translating back and forth into English and Spanish and each of our parents trying to make out what the others were saying. This resulted in some comical misunderstandings and mispronunciations that just added to the meal and conversation. Time flew by and before we knew it dusk was on its way and our bellies were full.

Juan and Paqui graciously invited us home for merienda, which consists of a post meal drink and snack. It was a bit strange being back in the house after leaving it earlier in the week when I took the bus to the airport with everyone from the program. I knew I’d be likely be going back, but it was strange to see the room without my belongings in it, in the same state is was when I arrived in Alcalá. It wasn’t as if I had never been there, however, as Paqui had put the photograph I’d given the family on the desk in the bedroom. We all sat around the coffee table, with Wall-E and Chiqui (I never found out how to spell her name) running around our feet and jumping on my lap from time to time. We passed the afternoon lightheartedly, making small talk while listening and caring about the topics in a true SPanish manner. It was a fantastic afternoon and was more than I could ask for as a conclusion to my semester studying abroad. My host family and my real family eating and talking together as one. As the evening drew on we said our goodbyes and hasta luegos, exchanging contact information so that we can stay in touch in the future. I feel incredibly lucky to have had such a great host family, one that takes an interest in their students’ lives and wellbeing while also allowing us to explore and discover Spain and its culture on our own. Thank you guys for everything!

As my last day in Alcalá (for the time-being) drew to a close I showed my parents some of my favorite spots in the town, including the Plaza del Palacio Arzobispal and Calle Mayor and Plaza de Cervantes at night. We dined at La Española for tapas in true Alcalá style, then took the bus back to Madrid to view a little of the surrounding city on the ride home. Wonderful to be able to share the city and family that has been home for the last few months with my family!

December 25, 2010

Holiday Trip: Day 3 – Segovia

Day 3 into our family vacation and we found ourselves rather unexpectedly at Christmas, or at least I did! Without the usual buildup around Tufts and the house at home, hanging Christmas lights, decorating my room, finding and decorating a Christmas tree, the holiday sprang up out of nowhere. It was more of a passive experience for me here, with my host family doing the decorations (a lovely tree and colorful flashing lights hung in front of the mirror were some highlights), the plaza turning into a market, lights suspended above the streets and a Christmas tree springing up in the plaza. Understanding that most attractions in Spain would be closed for the holiday, we decided to venture out to a different city to see the sights.

We decided to take the high speed train up to Segovia for the day, a town rich in history and tradition. After stopping for a chocolate croissant in Sol, we took the metro to Chamartin and then began our journey at alta velocidad to the ancient aqueduct that awaited us. The train ride was a brief 30 minutes, but provided us with some stunning views of the mountainous countryside, some of the higher peaks covered in snow. Arriving at the station, we were greeted with empty hillsides of snow, with the mountains we had just traveled beneath rising in the background. I feared we were at some random Segovia station far away from the city center, with only countryside and cows to keep us entertained on Christmas. Luckily, a quick bus ride brought us to the city center and soon we were standing beneath the aqueduct with a few hundred other people. But why the crowd? We had stumbled upon one of the greatest kept secrets of not only Segovia, not only Spain, but of the entire world: La Carrera del Pavo.

Every Christmas, for the last 75 years, the fine people of Segovia have gathered for the bicycle race to end all bicycle races, one in which there is no pedaling. But, Will, how do they race without pedals you may ask. A fine question, a fine question indeed. The cyclists mount their bicycles on the street at the top of the aqueduct then race down the hill, gathering as much speed as possible. At the bottom of the hill they make a turn through the center of the crowd, beneath the nearly 2,000 year old aqueduct, and begin making their way up the hill on the opposite side. The cyclist who makes it the farthest up the hill wins. People of all ages, from young whippersnappers to old fogies, participated in the race with a wide range of bicycles including custom-made peddle-less bikes and a E.T. in a basket. There was even an old man with a bicycle made out of wood!

After watching the turkey race and scoring some free hot chocolate, we headed up to the top of the aqueduct for some photos and then ventured into Plaza Mayor. By now it was time for lunch, so we found restaurant (there were more open than we had expected for Christmas day) and settled in for a traditional Segovian meal: cochinillo de Segovia, or suckling pig. While not normally at the top of my list of foods I would enjoy eating for lunch, I had to try it since it is the specialty of the region. It wasn’t bad, although the hoof sticking up from my plate was a little disconcerting. Dessert consisted of another traditional Segovian dish, this time delicious and visually appealing, of which I most unfortunately forgot the name. To complete the Segovian dining experience, we partook in a bottle of red wine from Segovia throughout the meal.

With full stomachs we headed to the cathedral and walked around the spacious interior. Next up was the Alcazar, which we could view from the outside. I had been to both of these sites with the study abroad program earlier in the fall, but it was fun to be back again and be able to share some of what I had learned about them with my parents. It was at this point that my dad realized he had lost his train ticket, so we took the next bus back to the train station in case it would be difficult to resolve the issue. We had some entertainment on the way thanks to some boisterous Americans singing “The Wheels on the Bus” next to us.

Luckily someone had found my dad’s ticket at the station and turned it in, so we were able to relax in peace for the next two hours at the strain station. I slept for a bit at the table (as did the boisterous Americans a table over). The train ride home was dark and uneventful except for my encounters with a certain Italian woman. It all began as we put our bags into the xray machine at the station. She was standing behind me and as I put my bag in the scanner, she threw hers on top of it. I didn’t understand why she had to put hers on top of my bag instead of behind it on the belt, as is the usual procedure in xray machines, but maybe she missed her target or they do it differently in Italy. On the other side of the machine however, our bags fully scanned, she attempts to maneuver ahead of me and recover her bag before mine (at this point hers had slipped off of mine and was behind mine). This resulted in our bags getting tangled, at which point she glared at me and yanked hers until they separated. I thought our strange encounter was over until I happened upon her once more on my search for a vending machine onboard the train. Strolling down the center aisle, I was interrupted by the rearend of a woman backing out of one of the seats. As she turned to face me, I was greeted once more by the glare of my Italian friend. I felt closer to her than ever before.

Back in Madrid, we took a brief siesta and then headed down past Plaza Mayor for some delicious tapas. We found a great little restaurant that served the best croquetas I’ve had in Spain, as well as delicious empanadas, brochetas, y huevos estrellados. We ended with a fantastic tiramisu. The restaurant was a little fancier than your typical tapas bar, but the ambiance wasn’t lost one bit. Our second Christmas meal was as much of a success, if not more so, than our first and we headed back to the hotel as happy as could be. Content and ready to relax before bed, we put on Love Actually (best movie ever for those of you who will be seeing it for the first time in the future) and spent a relaxing Christmas evening in the hotel. While quite different from our traditional Christmas day at home, this was a fantastic one I won’t be forgetting any time soon.

December 24, 2010

Holiday Trip: Days 1 and 2 – Madrid

Study abroad has come to an end, and while I’ll continue to post entries I’d started over the last two months but never finished, I’m now onto the next adventure and want to keep up with the blog. My parents came to visit me in Spain yesterday and we’re spending Christmas here, New Year’s in Paris, and then a few days in Vienna. Extremely excited for the trip and want to remember it, so I figure I can write and update when they go to sleep and I feel the urge to be a bit of a night owl.

Yesterday began with my half-asleep self apparently deciding to turn off the silly alarm that was annoyingly trying to wake me up to catch the 7am bus to the airport. When my less than half-asleep realized this after missing a call from a friend at 6:30, he was not very happy. Luckily, we both got ready in time and made it to the bus and airport with plenty of time. The plan was to wait at the airport and meet my parents who would be arriving within a few hours from Boston via London. Basi, one of the amazing guys who worked with the program, drove all the way out to the airport to see everyone off. When everyone flying home went through security, he kept me company for a while as I waited for the flight from London to arrive.

Little did I know that the original flight from Boston had been delayed due to icing and my parents had not been able to make their second flight. I waited expectantly for nearly two hours by the arrival gate. Love Actually forgets to show this part of the airport reunion process. Luckily I was able to check my email when someone left an internet kiosk with time to spare, and discovered that my parents would not be arriving until 10 in the evening, nearly 11 hours after their original time. Dejected, I headed back into Madrid via metro, luggage and all.

Checked into the hotel and checked out of consciousness with an afternoon long siesta. Made up for the lack of sleep from the last week in Spain of final projects, exams and fiesta. Took some pictures around Sol as it was filled with people. Headed back to the airport and met Mom and Dad after another hour delay. Left our bags at the hotel and got some early churros at Chocolatería San Gínés and did some catching up.

Waking up this morning was difficult, but by 12 we made it out of the hotel and into the beautiful Christmas market at Plaza Mayor. While not filled with gifts to buy, the market is truly a Christmas market, containing all the necessities of the traditional Spanish Christmas: pieces for the nativity (belén), ornaments and decorations, Christmas trees and, of course, crazy colorful wigs. After shoving my way into La Mallorquina for three napolitanas de chocoalte, we boarded the MadridVision tourbus for some sightseeing. Fun to see the sights of Madrid as a tourist as I hadn’t done that while living here. We hopped off at the Prado for some art viewing and managed to get in a fair amount before being asked to leave as it was closing early for La Noche Buena. I’d forgotten it was Christmas Eve!

For lunch I introduced my parents to the kebap, the delicious persian dish seen throughout Spain. We then completed the bus tour and explored the Mercado de San Miguel, a very cool indoor market near Plaza Mayor. The Market was in full swing with tourists and families wandering about, eating, drinking and being merry. Some stalls were closed, but the rest made up for it, selling seafood, chocolate, wine and all sorts of foods. Taking a long cut back to the hotel, we wandered through Opera and the area around Sol.

After a brief siesta we decided to get some tapas for dinner. We didn’t realize how empty the streets would be for Christmas Eve and soon found ourselves at an abandoned La Latina metro stop not knowing what direction to go in. Clearly the best plan of action was to follow the Italian family that left the metro station before us. Our guides led us to a beautifully lit church but then decided to head down a side street behind the church and so, fearing they might sneakily lead us into a mass somewhere, we abandoned them and continued down the main road. Soon we reached a destination quite far from the one intended and ended up with another scenic long cut by the Palacio Real and up Calle Mayor.

With still no open restaurants in sight we headed back to Sol where I asked a pleasant city worker where there might be a fine dining establishment open for us. Hoy? Es Noche Vieja! Apparently there were none. But if there’s anything I’ve learned from studying in Spain, you can always count on the chinos to save you. Rephrasing my question, I asked for restaurantes asiáticos and he was able to send us in the correct direction. Mom saw some signs which we followed and we soon found a restaurant. A brief wait and we had a table. The host reminded us how lucky we were saying that every restaurant in the city was closed, except the chinos. The food was delicious and we made headed back home full of tasty food and Christmas spirit. Had a quick photo shoot (see below) then headed in for the night. Currently my plan is working as my parents are asleep and I am finishing up the first blog post while listening to some Christmas tunes. Tomorrow the plan is to head to Segovia and see what we can find to do on Christmas day. Merry Christmas everyone! Feliz Navidad!

December 9, 2010

Advice for Studying Abroad

With only a few weeks left, I want to reflect on some of the things I’ve learned during the semester in Spain that might be helpful to others studying in Spain (and abroad in general) in the future. I think that studying in a foreign country is one of the best opportunities available to students as it allows them to see the world from a different perspective. Depending on the country one visits, his or her experience will be completely different and offer him or her a unique lens through which to view the culture and events of the world.


The two things I was most concerned about before coming to Spain were and what I would do about having a cell phone and what I should pack. Being in a foreign country with a bunch of people you’ve never meet before, your cellphone and Facebook become your best ways of staying in touch with people and making plans. In Spain, you’re not charged for incoming text messages or phone calls and if you have the same carrier as your friends, calls among you are free (except for the 15 cent connection fee they don’t tell you about!). Because of this, it’s best to sign up with all your friends so that you can talk for as long as you want (or at least for 10 minutes) without raking in charges. Spain, and most of Europe, use the GSM network, so if you’re on AT&T or T-Mobile you can use your own phone abroad as long as it is unlocked. For those of you on Verizon and Sprint, you’re out of luck unless you have a world phone like a Blackberry. You can buy a phone here, but it is definitely cheaper to just buy a SIM card to put into your own phone. I brought my phone to Spain and went with MásMovil where I was able to get a free SIM with the purchase of 15 minutes of talk time. MásMovil by far the cheapest solution in terms of calling and texting charges, and it also offers the ability to keep track of your charges through a well-designed online interface and lets you set up automatic recharging with a credit card. I know this sounds like an ad, but I was just really happy with the service I received. Before leaving, I recommend trying to find an old or used GSM phone from friends/family or online through Ebay to avoid having to buy one here. For those going to Spain, avoid HappyMóvil. Nearly all of my friends used it and had tons of issues like being charged for minutes that were never added to the account and poor customer service. Most of the cheaper prepaid carriers do not work outside of Spain, so if you’re planning on doing a lot of traveling you’ll want to look into their Europe coverage before making any sort of purchase.


Packing for a semester abroad is almost like packing for college. You have limited room in your suitcase and most likely in your room where you’ll be living, so pack sparingly and plan ahead. Two weeks worth of clothes should be plenty, especially if you’re living with a host family as they usually do laundry at least once a week. Planning around seasons can be difficult as the weather differs much throughout Europe. Spain is similar to the U.S. in that winter in the north lasts longer with more snowfall, while the south and coast are more temperate. In Madrid, the winter temperature stays around the freezing point while the Fall can be in the 50s-60s F and the summer can get into the 80s or higher. The best advice I can give is to pack for different situations and bring clothes that you’ll be able to layer so you can get the most of packing lightly.


There is more to packing than clothes, however, and this may be the most important thing to consider depending on where you go. You can get clothes anywhere, but medicines and toiletries differ from country to country. If you have a medicine that you take on a daily basis, bring enough for the entire duration if possible as it could be hard to get it while abroad. I haven’t bought contact lens solution in Spain, but we were told multiple times that it is different so I’d recommend bringing enough if you can. As far as school supplies go, Spaniards are not fans of college ruled notebooks, so if you are bring your own. Also bring your favorite writing instruments and don’t let your Dad take them out at the last minute to save weight in your suitcase! Definitely bring a computer, but if you have a 15” computer as I do you might want to consider a netbook or something a little smaller because it’s been pretty hard to travel with such a large computer.


Now for some general advice! Have fun and live with an open mind. The most important thing is to mesh with the culture while not losing sight of the fact that you’re only abroad for a limited time. This is something that I’ve struggled with a lot here (see the previous post) and is a difficult balance to find. There will be cultural differences, but don’t freak out. People are generally kind and forgiving (especially in Spain), so if you mess up don’t take it too hard and just learn from your first mistakes. Try new things, explore the culture and explore yourself! I realize that this post ended up being more advice on what to do about communicating and a little about packing, with barely anything about living, but there is really no advice to give for that except to enjoy it! There will be work and things might seem tough at times between the change in culture and missing home, but if you always keep in mind that you’re studying abroad surrounded by people and students from another country and another culture with a different view of the same world, it will be impossible not to find new and amazing discoveries each day.

October 15, 2010

Thoughts on Traveling

Every day I spend here in Spain I realize how many things I would love to see here but that I won’t have the time to. There are enough interesting museums alone to occupy me for years to come. One of the assignments for my sketching class involved a reading comparing travelers and tourists that argued that travelers embed themselves in the culture and society of their destination, while tourists simply visit the most well-worn paths of the travelers who have come before them. While I continue to suffer an ever-growing existential crisis, as every day that passes means one less day I will be able to spend in Spain, I feel like I am treading the line between the two.

An essential mode of thought for being part of the culture of a location is one of “I have plenty of time to see that”. As a kid growing up near Boston, it always amazed me that tourists would come to visit the city. Ya it was cool, but it was just Boston, the same as it had always been. The city was always there, a short drive over the bridge or a quick ride on the metro was all it took. Not until my high school years and ultimately college did I really begin to appreciate the nearly limitless activities offered by Boston alone. There are concerts and shows to see, parks to visit, and restaurants to try to name a few activities.

Living in Spain has really brought this dichotomy of the traveler and the inhabitant into focus for me. I find myself confronted daily with different opportunities, like going into Madrid to see a play, trying to get to a jazz concert at a small jazz café, or just making the walk to the weekly market by the facultad de documentación. I started this particular post in October when I still had two months left to take advantage of living in Spain. Now the semester is nearly finished and I have barely three weeks remaining in the country. What I started to realize nearly two months ago, that I was adapting to the mindset of the inhabitant, choosing to sleep in or stay inside instead of making the “trek” into Madrid, has only become more clear in the last few weeks. Time is always this arcane force that we’re constantly moving with while always fighting against. Whenever our particular time limit draws near, we tend to fight more and more until we are ultimately swept over the edge. With such little time remaining I can feel the precipice approaching faster than ever.

All this said, I’ve realized there is a balance that must be found between the feeling of being an inhabitant with all the time in the world and a traveler with limited time. One cannot do everything and it wouldn’t be an enjoyable experience to be running all the time trying to fit as much in as possible. At times the inhabitant must think like a traveler and the traveler like an inhabitant. My past weekend in Madrid is a perfect example of the balance I was able to find. On Friday night the end of the program seemed closer than ever and I had an existential crisis where I decided to live every moment in Spain to the max and take advantage of every opportunity I have here. Predictably this freak out made it difficult to fall asleep and I overslept, ultimately missing the train to get to jazz show I had planned on seeing Saturday morning in Madrid. Joder. I spent the day a little disappointed with myself and met with some friends in a café to do some homework. As the day wore on, however, I realized how much fun I was having just spending time with my friends here in a relaxing environment. Maybe this also counts as taking advantage of my opportunities? When would I be able to just sit in a café with hours, talking, hanging out and doing very little actual homework? That night we went out to an area in Alcalá, La Garena, that I had been meaning to make it to all semester but had never gone because it required taking the train or bus and getting a cab home. With tons of restaurants and bars in a small square it was a blast!

I slept in the next morning and took the train into Madrid at night to see a jazz show with some friends at a club near Sol in Madrid. The show was fantastic! The musician was American and as he improved on the piano he told us to leave all our worries behind and let ourselves be taken away by the music. Just what I needed to hear! It hit me that this was the perfect analogy for finding a balance in studying abroad. You have to adapt to the culture and ultimately forget your worries and let the culture take you away. I am living and studying in Spain, not vacationing or simply visiting. I chose the Tufts in Madrid program for this particular reason. Spanish culture is one of spending time in cafés and restaurants with friends, walking slowly down the street and sharing your experiences with others. Many times this includes going to museums or seeing a show, but other times it requires you to step back and slow down for a bit. As I near the last weeks of my time here, I’m trying to appreciate this relaxed perspective and keep a balance between my desire to fit everything in and the sanity that the Spanish culture helps provide.

October 15, 2010

Otoño y El Mercado de Servantes

I had one of my scariest experiences here two weekends ago. I opened Chrome to check the weather and saw that the forecast for the entire week was chilly and rainy. I was thoroughly depressed until I realized that my weather widget was still set to Medford, MA and that this horrific forecast wasn’t going to affect me here. Thank God. The weather has simply been incredible over the last month and a half. We arrived in the throes of a dying summer with temperatures in the upper 20’s, low 30’s (80-90 ºF). These days were a little painful at first, but within the first two weeks the temperature dropped to a comfortable mid 20’s range with bright sun greeting us nearly every day. There have been a few days of rain here, but for the most part the weather has been kinder than I could’ve hoped. Now in ides of October (November by the time of uploading!), we’re heading into autumn and in the last two weeks there has been a noticeable drop in temperatures and a familiar briskness in the air. The days are still warm, while the nights descend into the teens.

At home in New England this change in season brings with it some pretty fantastic things. As the temperatures drop and the winds begin to blow, the bushy green trees begin to blush in the crisp fall air, turning from the verdant green of summer to vibrant reds, yellows, and oranges of autumn. Apples grow ripe in the orchards waiting to be picked and enjoyed immediately or in a myriad of delicious dishes like apple pie, apple cider, and apple cider doughnuts. Clearly I’m a little nostalgic.

While I miss the seasonal customs I’ve had throughout my life, autumn in Spain brings its own set of customs, celebrations, and fiestas. In Alcalá the beginning of October is marked by the Semana Cervantina, a weeklong festival honoring Miguel de Cervantes, the famous Spanish author born here. While there are events throughout the entire week, the main event is the Mercado de el Quixote. My host-mother had told me about this amazing festival back in September and we made sure to come back from Barcelona on Sunday, leaving Monday completely free to explore the market. On my walk to the taxi to the airport early Friday morning I saw the merchants setting up beneath the tents and banner of the medieval fair and couldn’t wait to be back in Alcalá to take part.

On the walk home from the train station on Sunday I took the chance to make my way down Calle Mayor and explore the market a bit. The streets were lined with tented shop stands attended by vendors in Renaissance and Middle Ages era clothing and completely filled with people. On my way home I passed crepe shops, cheese vendors, bakers, artisans and everything in-between. A little tired from the trip to Barcelona and overwhelmed by the amount of people, I headed home and returned to tackle the market after a good night’s sleep.

The mercado is one of the coolest experiences I’ve had here in Spain. During the festival, Alcalá de Henares becomes the center of Spain. People from all over the country, and the world, descend upon the city to see this annual festival. A little over to month into the semester and I was now at home in a city of tourists. The streets were filled with people so that one could barely move through the crowd. Walking in the wrong direction on Calle Mayor felt like trying to swim up river. There were stands for food, from warm crepes, to tea, to chocolate and pastries, and even pickles. Some areas had street-side restaurants and bars , where people would order drinks and have dinner or some tapas. We even found a little stall to take chupitos out of cuernos!

The majority of the venders were selling different types of crafts and art. I came out of the market with some Christmas gifts for my family and a quill pen for myself! I can see why the market lasts all weekend, as the two days I had wasn’t nearly enough to take in everything I would’ve liked. Street markets are very typical in Spain, with one occuring in Alcalá every Monday and many more in Madrid throughout the week, but few are presented with such flair and pomp as the Mercado de el Quixote. While standing in line for a chocolate crepe, I heard the sound of a marching band in the distance. Soon they were upon us and we were presented with the spectacle of a brigade of trumpets and flag throwers performing in traditional costumes. They marched around the plaza and down Calle Mayor, doing so throughout the day. Other small groups of what I assumed to be of a less official nature also filled the streets with music and dance.

In addition to the merchants and musicians, a few artisans settled in the plaza for the weekend to exhibit their craft. A blacksmith had set up shop and was demonstrating how to create things out of iron, while sculptors were creating a kiln. Across the plaza glass blowers were creating beautiful glass horses and a cooper was making barrels. People filled the plaza, moving from demonstration to stration, enjoying seeing these masters of their crafts.

The Semana Cervantina was a great local fiesta that made me appreciate being in Alcalá even more. I wouldn’t be able to find this local experience in a bigger city or another smaller city without the same rich cultural history of Alcalá. Wading through the masses of people I saw friends that I’d met here and ran into one of the program directors hanging out with his friends at a mojito bar. Great end to such a full weekend!

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